One week lay over in ‘Kota Kinabalu’ or ‘KK’ for friends, capital of Sabah, the second largest state of Malaysia. Located on the island of Borneo, the state is reputed for its rich natural diversity.
It boasts Malaysia’s highest peak, a UNESCO world heritage tropical jungle, pristine beaches, world-class dive sites and orangutans in the wild.
Who wouldn’t want a weeklong layover in what sounds like an ecological paradise?! You would be mad not to grasp the opportunity to explore the riches of Sabah. Yet here I was, comfortably settled in my hostel dorm room, not planning any activities at all.
Sabah does indeed have some gems, but like most treasures, they are highly protected. This means you mostly need to book packaged tours to explore the majority of them. That’s right, forget the ‘National Geographic-type’ scene of you and your local guide machetting your way through the lush steamy rainforest. There are clearly marked paths and lots of other tourists.
To climb Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest mountain, you need to book your overnight expedition months ahead and it will set you back €270.
During your organised canoe safari through the jungle rivers, your guide tells you he can’t stop the boat for you to check out the monkey posing by the river bank because it’s already 6.05pm and your tour ends at 6pm. (True story from several travellers I met)
You’re obviously not the only one taking the tours, so you can expect hordes of (Chinese) tourists, island hopping with you and leaving trash all over the not so deserted beaches.
For a guaranteed sighting of orangutangs swinging freely through the treetops you need to make way to the rehabilitation centre… Why spend seven hours on the road only to have to fight off a crowd of tourists on the viewing platform.
Don’t get me wrong, there are possibilities to have a more authentic Borneo experience and not use tours, but it will take you quite some time, effort and money.
So what happened?
I was simply not in the mood for extensive travel nor did I want a disneyland-type outing despite the fact that the attractions are unique in the world. I decided not to partake in the “mandatory” tourist trail. I spent most my days in Kota Kinabalu working from the hostel, getting massages, eating, socialising with travellers and the hostel personnel.
After a while I started feeling some traveler’s guilt, thinking “I really ought to visit something...ANYTHING!”
So I took 3 short trips from KK and as it turns out, you can perfectly “fake” the tourist trail by going on day trips!
Even though I was being a lazy traveler, I still managed to see most of Sabah’s highlights!
One of the trips, which was actually an overnight trip, took me to Kinabalu National park
I didn’t climb Mt. Kinabalu but I did mount some sloping hills around it and got some great views
I hiked a few km’s through the rainforest
A 15 minute boat ride just off KK’s coast took me to some unspoilt beaches.
The last outing, took me to Rasa Ria, a five star resort which has its own nature reserve. It’s a short 45 minute taxi ride away from KK, which allowed me to spend a few a hours getting close and personal with our orangutan cousins. The resort’s rehabilitation centre is in close coöperation with the larger and more popular Sepilok Nature Reserve. There are much less orangutans in Rasa Ria, but also less tourists and the monkeys play around closer to the viewing platform.
Unfortunately, diving was the only activity missing from my ‘lazy travel itinerary’. It takes an extra flight, a bus trip and truckload of cash (at least €500) to reach the underwater paradise of Sipidan. Although it would have undoubtedly been worth the trouble, I didn’t have the money. I still managed to see a lot of fish… on my plate!
I spoke with many travellers in Sabah and they all confirmed my thoughts: by visiting this part of Borneo, you probably won’t be in for a rugged, authentic and unique adventure. Unless you have an abundance of time and resources, that is.
Sabah is a great destination if you long to comfortably experience what Borneo has to offer minus the hassle of organising permits, transportation… I would advice you to combine a visit to Sabah with –time permitting- Sarawak, the other Malaysian state on the island.
For a more unspoilt cultural and natural Bornean experience, head to Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo.